By J. Brent Findley
The Mac has long been the standard platform for pro-level production in the music business. Tight control over equipment specifications creates a synergy between the Operating System and hardware no PC can seem to match. Steadfast operation under heavy work-loads has become Appleís reputation.
What we witness with the release of Apple's Soundtrack is a continuation of the synergy between hardware and software, with a nod towards the "less-than-pro-level" music-making user. How exciting: Music production software made by Apple, for the Mac! It could almost be assumed that the experience of using Soundtrack would be flawless.
Indeed, the loop-based software itself performed without a hitch. From the initial installation of the core program and extended installation of the bundled loop package, to song creation and MP3 conversion, never did the program cause even so much as a hiccup. The only bump in the road came when I attempted to access the Help documentation, which is stored in Adobe PDF format. The first launch of Help crashed Adobe Acrobat. A second try executed just fine. Iím not knocking points off the score of the Soundtrack program for this; after all, who reads the manual, anyway?
To be true, the Help documentation for Soundtrack is excellent. It is thorough in every nook and cranny of the program. Where pro- level software makers have the luxury of foregoing basics in their manuals, Apple has gone beyond expectations for making a manual that someone just getting started in music can understand, without forcing a more experienced user to say, "tell me something I donít already know." Right after a brief introduction to Soundtrack, the manual goes right into an Audio and Music Basics section, with headings like "Basic Audio Concepts, Musical Sounds" and "Basic Music Concepts, Harmony and Key." If you are interested in the fundamentals of music and sound, this is an excellent primer, even if you donít actually use the Soundtrack software itself! In fact, let your 10-year old reference it for her next assignment in music class.
So, what would loop-based music production software be used for? Are you asking yourself, "Is Soundtrack something I could use?" The answer lies in the programís core competency: manipulating audio files that already exist. There is no audio interface bundled with the program. That is to say, if you want to create your own audio files/music from scratch, youíll have to find a way to get it into your computer first. Soundtrack canít do it by itself. The extent to which you invest in an audio interface will have an impact on the quality of your recordings. The microphone input on the stock soundcard choices in a Mac will do fine for capturing the output of a karaoke machine, radio/ CD player, or other consumer- grade equipment. You could even capture the output from a self- contained keyboard. However, the hundreds of bundled loops that Apple has jammed into this package have been recorded on pro audio gear at high sample rates and will have a marked contrast when mixed with home-spun audio tracks recorded with consumer- level gear. But donít let that stop your creativity. If you like the idea of mixing and matching existing audio files to create clever new songs, Soundtrack is an excellent choice.
My primary goal right out of the gate after installing Soundtrack was to see how quickly and easily I could create a brand new song, using only the tools and loops the program provides. The complete program installation took 30 minutes; my first song took 2 hours. It probably couldíve taken less, but I canít leave well-enough alone. Tweak, tweak, tweak. I probably went right on by the Ďperfect mixí a couple times. Thank goodness for the deep levels of Undo.
The core of the program is more intuitive than some pro-level audio production software I have used. The program launches with a user interface that makes sense, though it can be rearranged easily if needed. Three main columns appear. A "Media Manager" column on the left is very familiar as it has the same feel and function of the Mac Finder window, but specifically displays audio files located on the computer. These files can be dragged and dropped as tracks to the far-right column, which is the "Timeline" portion of the "Project Workspace." This is effectively the music scroll, with the default display being bars of time. The middle column, also part of the Project Workspace, contains the definitions of each track, indicating the key, with controls for track volume, stereo panning, track title, and a nifty icon of your choice as a quick visual indicator of what instrument is played on the track, such as a guitar, keyboard, or drums. Tracks are stacked vertically. The Project Workspace also contains the all- familiar "transport controls." Thatís fancy- talk for "Stop, Play, Pause, and Record" buttons. Even in the age of pure- digital interaction, we still get to use controls that feel like weíre using a cassette deck. Everyone knows how they work, so no explanation is needed to get someone up and running.
The processing of loops for key changes leaves a little something to be desired for the discerning ear. As loops are moved up 5 or 7 semitones, an obvious thinning effect can be heard. While the key changes and the tempo stays the same, the depth of the sound quality of the loop is sacrificed. Iím sure it has something to do with the rate of re- sampling to make the key change and the bit depth. This characteristic is not reserved for Soundtrack alone, as most host-based audio systems suffer this behavior.
There's a neat little tool that launches in its own workspace that is used for editing loops themselves. Since the core program is only used for arranging and mixing audio files, something was needed to be able to make changes to those audio files themselves. Changes like tempo and key changes and meta- information (loop author, comments, instrument labels, etc.) This tool is called the Soundtrack Loop Utility. Of all the features of Soundtrack, I found this to be the least user- friendly. While it is very useful and necessary for editing characteristics of existing loops, I highly recommend referring to the Help documentation before spending a lot of time playing with it. Though it isn't intuitive, I'm just glad the utility exists at all.
Save for the massive loop library, which can be accessed from the DVD instead of copied to the hard drive, the program is not resource- intensive and does not invade system properties to the point where one would have to dedicate a computer solely to run Soundtrack, unlike some pro-level programs. There is no trouble using Soundtrack on a machine used primarily for other things, like word processing, email, and other productivity programs. In fact, what I see as a bonus in Soundtrack's favor, over other audio- editing software, is that Apple Update will not (read: should not) load system changes that will interfere with the operation of Soundtrack. It is not unusual for third-party audio- editing software manuals to recommend disabling the Apple Automatic Update feature because of the risk of untested system changes.
What fun! I could spend hours playing with the stock loops, mixing and matching, tweaking and tuning. It's better than any video game, and the results are that which I can share with others. Soundtrack is certainly no pro-level audio production piece, but then, who of us has the pro-level gear in our house to make this evident? For what I can do in my basement studio, Soundtrack is quick, fun, and appropriate.
Glossary, from Soundtrack Help unless otherwise noted:
Bit depth = The number of bits contained in each sample of digital audio. The higher the bit depth, the more information recorded about a sample of audio, and therefore more closely resembling the original sound as heard by the human ear. Larger file size results from higher bit depth.
Host-based (from answerbase.digidesign.com) = System arrangement where all audio processing is done on the computer's CPU, instead of having dedicated hardware specifically for audio processing.
Loop = An audio clip with recurring rhythmic musical elements suitable for repetition, such as a drum rhythm. As opposed to a one-shot, a clip that is not meant to be repeated consecutively, such as a cymbal crash.
Sample rates = The number of samplings, or instant recordings, per second in a digital audio recording. Sample rate is an integral part of the quality of a digital recording. The higher the better, though larger file size results.
Semitone (from www.enjoythemusic.com/musicdefinition.htm) = The smallest pitch difference in Western music, for instance G to G-sharp.
Stereo panning = The left- to- right placement of a sound within the stereo field.
Tracks = Horizontal rows in the Timeline used to organize audio clips within a project. Soundtrack projects can have up to 127 audio tracks and one video track.
Brent Findley, a member of GRAMUG, is a musician and an amateur music recording engineer, spending his nights and weekends playing in his basement recording studio. His primary recording setup is comprised of Digidesign ProTools LE software using the Digidesign MBox USB audio interface into a Mac G4 with dual 1.25 Ghz processors and 1GB RAM. Apple Soundtrack will now be used regularly, also.
The song Brent created for this review can be heard at this address. Copyright 2004; Brent Findley. It was made with 16 separate loops and one-shots from the Soundtrack Loop Library, using only Soundtrack components for all operations.
Posted: Thursday, September 1st, 2005